Lessons from a Singapore Sojourn

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Recently, I was asked by my friend Joevel to write about my experiences in the Republic of Singapore, where I had the opportunity to visit in 2016 and in 2019. Upon her beckoning and mention of the subject, I quickly grabbed the opportunity to do so.

The author in his Singapore trip. | Photo furnished by Gaby Lacson

There, I recounted briefly what I found most striking about its national character and also what is most enjoyable about their Little Red Dot tucked in so nicely in a strategic corner of Asia. I wrote it in time for their 55th National Day on the 9th of August.

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For many Singaporeans today, the 9th of August is a day of pride, glory, and unfettered national celebration to commemorate their separation from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, which they had joined less than two years prior.

The ArtScience Museum. | Photo by Gaby Lacson

Today, it is seen as a commemoration of their resilience and fantastic progress in the face of adversity while developing securely close to two countries with rabid communist insurgencies.

But for one man, the 9th represented a massive failure on his part to deliver.

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Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, upon hearing the news of his country’s separation from Malaysia, lamented “Every time we look back on this moment when we signed this agreement which severed Singapore from Malaysia, it will be a moment of anguish. For me, it is a moment of anguish because all my life…. you see, the whole of my adult life…. I have believed in Merger and the unity of these two territories. You know, it’s a people, connected by geography, economics, and ties of kinship.”

Skyscrapers dot the largely urban landscape of Singapore. | Photo by Gaby Lacson

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew was initially upset by this abrupt severing of ties. After a difficult interview on that fateful day, he retreated into seclusion until the next Parliament sitting come December of that year. It was only the beginning of something great – the Singapore Story, which every nation in the world can learn a little something from. I am writing about my own experiences with it, my own, little Singapore Story.

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Touching down at Changi Airport on the first day of April in 2016 and on its last day, the 30th, in 2019 has always been a surreal experience. It is like a time leap into the future, one where efficiency and best practices are recognized and implemented across every aspect of life, including systems design, architecture, and technological innovation.

The Istana, the official residence and office of the President of Singapore. | Photo by Gaby Lacson

Upon disembarking, the immigration processes and their personnel are helpful, kind, and make use of computers and connections to log in your arrival in the city-state. Jewel Changi, a glittering, new mall built adjacent to their airports bearing numerous shops, an indoor park, and the world’s largest indoor waterfall boasts these three telling characteristics.

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What a joy for me to have visited it first hand, gazing at its wonder and shopping, too, at the first Pokémon Center outside Japan.

The Sri Temasek, a detached house located within The Istana Grounds. | Photo by Gaby Lacson

Visiting the Republic of Singapore without a doubt should feature primarily a look into its past, its present, and its future, with a deep focus on its institutional and cultural composition as the tiniest nation-state in terms of land area in South East Asia.

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Visitors may place the National Gallery, its National Museum, its Parliament, and the rarely-open Istana or its Presidential Palace and executive compound on top of a list of places to visit.

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My own experiences there allowed me a look into the vibrant and compelling narrative of how inclusive but strong institution-building permitted the nurturing of its human capital and its urban contours.

Singapore at Night. | Photo by Gaby Lacson

A visit to the National Gallery, the Asian Civilisations Museum, and the National Museum tell the tale of a rugged, and tiny polity which, being strategically located close to a major trading route, was permitted to have its potential unleashed by a series of economically-centered and pragmatic policies by a government structured after the United Kingdom’s Westminster parliamentary system.

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Their museums, also remaining the abode of tasteful art and style from across Southeast Asia, tell the tale of oppression, liberation, and inclusion into a racially-harmonious and cohesive Asian society, founded on a unique blend of communitarianism and individual responsibility.

Street food, Singapore style. | Photo by Gaby Lacson

This left a meaningful impact on me and my way of thinking, and allowed my mind to wonder whether we had done things wrong in the Philippines. A pleasant experience these visits were.

Singapore’s presidential complex, the Istana, a neoclassical structure built for the United Kingdom’s assigned Governor General during its British colonization period, opens only during selected days of the year, for a total of up to six public openings.

The National Gallery, which houses a vast collection of Southeast Asian art. | Photo by Gaby Lacson

Within the large, sprawling, and verdant compound are located not only the President’s official offices and residence, but also the residence and offices of its Prime Ministers, a detached house within the compound called Sri Temasek.

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This is a reflection of their British parliamentary system, where it is the President’s role to lead and unite the Republic, while the Prime Minister’s role is to remain accountable to his peers in the legislature and push forward the agenda of the government, permitting for the separation between the controversial and more formal parts of its governance.

Worth mentioning is how their efficient and incorrupt governance crafted and implemented a long-term, stable investment environment, with Singapore having tree-lined avenues as part of its Garden City initiative, a robust and convenient public transportation system which was a delight to use, and an urban housing project that saves space while giving Singaporeans an opportunity to build a good and decent life from a comfortable abode.

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Complementing such is their almost-complete openness to international investors and companies, providing their citizens with jobs and livelihoods, powering their economy with technology and high-quality goods and services, while also giving the government a source of income to fund their ever-pragmatic initiatives.

The result of this has been to bestow Singapore the honor of being the most competitive economy in the entire world, along with one of the highest gross domestic products divided by population or GDP per capita.

One cannot talk about Singapore without remarking upon its food and gastronomy, which is internationally recognized and acclaimed as a defining hallmark of its national identity.

Hainanese chicken rice, ubiquitous durian ice cream, and authentic satay filled my taste buds with nothing but delight and ecstasy, as I savored the unique and penetrating flavors of their cuisine, which drew influences from all across the region.

More specifically, the Michelin-recommended chicken rice of Tian Tian at the Maxwell Food Center proved to me its deserved place on their guide. The fragrant, aromatic rice, the savory umami of the chicken meat, and the pointed spiciness of the chili sauce all amalgamate into a medley of rich flavors, infusing a uniquely Singaporean experience into one’s mouth. And almost everywhere you turn, the much-loved chicken rice can also be found.

I have found a happy and well-organized series of institutions so carefully and intricately organized to shape and nurture the outcomes of their endeavors, along with citizens who live a good life on the account of these policies designed for their broad benefit.

In the words of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, “We could lead peaceful, quiet lives. Why were we doing this? It was an act of conviction! This is my country! This is my life! This is my people! You will trample over us over our dead bodies! We dug our toes in we built a nation.”
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and his team really did build a nation with the right plans, the right systems, and the right policies.

He made his country a vibrant and wealthy place attractive to the entire international community and secure for its people.
As Singapore celebrates its 55th National Day, the story which started out in anguish turned out best for the Little Red Dot and its formidable populace, whose destiny appears safe and ready to face the future. How I wish we could learn from them and start writing our own Singapore story, a nation built with hope, grit, and aspirations for a better world.
Happy 55th National, Republic of Singapore! Majulah Singapura.

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